In his first year as an NFL head coach, Frank Reich put chips on his players’ shoulders by playing up the lack of respect the Colts were getting. He can’t use that in his playbook in 2019.
INDIANAPOLIS — Last year, the question was whether Frank Reich could be a successful NFL head coach. This year, it’s about whether he can lead the Indianapolis Colts another step forward.
Twelve months ago, nobody knew what to expect from Reich, a former offensive coordinator in Philadelphia who didn’t call plays and wasn’t originally even a top-five candidate during the hiring process by the Colts. He didn’t get in the pool of candidates until Josh McDaniels pulled off a last-minute switch to return to New England on Feb. 6, 2018.
Five days later, Reich was hired and showed he was the right choice — and maybe even the better choice — to lead the rebuilding Colts. He played a big role in a turnaround after a 1-5 start in 2018 as the Colts finished 10-6 and made the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2014. He finished third in the NFL’s Coach of the Year voting.
That’s fine and all, but in sports, it’s not about living in the past. Reich and the Colts set the bar for 2019 when they advanced to the AFC divisional round of the playoffs in January.
Reich knows about the expectations. He has been down this path before during his 13-year NFL coaching career. But Reich isn’t going to change his coaching style, how he talks to his players and what he will tell general manager Chris Ballard and owner Jim Irsay during a season in which the Colts can be a Super Bowl contender.
Reich’s motivational tactics do have to change: He challenged his players with the low expectations set by outsiders last season and now will have to keep his players humble and focused on their daily goals this year.
“Yeah, that will be a little bit of the challenge. I don’t think — maybe I overplayed the preseason ranking thing a little bit. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” Reich said, laughing. “… As you know me and as you know how we roll around here, we typically don’t make a big deal out of that. So really the challenge this year will be keeping the same approach, the 1-0 approach. Keeping the getting better every day, not being complacent in any way. Not falling into the trap of thinking, ‘We are supposed to be this and that.’ We did nothing. We’ve got to go prove it every day and that should be our mentality.”
The Colts appeared to be headed toward another top-10 draft pick in 2018, and the switch was flipped even before they closed the regular season with nine victories in their final 10 games.
It was on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 2018, in overtime against the Houston Texans. Reich cemented the belief of his players and the front office when he went for it on fourth down with the ball in their territory. The Colts failed to convert and lost the game when the Texans took over and kicked the winning field goal. Reich took ownership of the decision and his players were quick to defend him.
Ballard, who admitted he made a mistake in not interviewing Reich with the first wave of candidates after the 2017 season, praised Reich’s conviction, and knew he had the locker room from that point forward.
“He had them because he believed in them and he supported them and he took the bullet for them,” Ballard said. “That’s a beautiful thing, man. That is a unique thing in our profession; it just is. Look, sometimes God does things for you that you don’t deserve, and I feel very fortunate that Frank is here.”
Reich exudes the same type of confidence in coaching that he had when as a quarterback he led two of the biggest comebacks in football history — one while at the University of Maryland and one during a playoff game with the Buffalo Bills. Not many head coaches walk into the stadium wearing headphones as if they’re about to go play in a game, not coach in one. He doesn’t say it, but he has an inner confidence that his playcalling will beat any defense. But when it fails — as it did against Houston in overtime — Reich doesn’t run from it. That was the case when the Kansas City Chiefs got out to an early lead and took the Colts out of their offensive game plan in the divisional round.
“I’m not afraid to make mistakes,” Reich said. “I made my share of mistakes and I will continue to make mistakes. That’s just part of the process of learning. So, [I] just want to maintain that aggressive mindset, a fearless mindset and maintain a growth mindset. So from that perspective, I just feel like I’ve got a long way to go.”
After the season, Reich broke down his playcalling the same way Andrew Luck broke down his throws in the offseason. Reich worked with offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni so much during the offseason in person or via text or phone calls that he joked during a Bible study session that he couldn’t be partners with him because they needed a break from each other. Irsay referred to Reich’s work ethic as “legendary.”
“I just have always thought that he is such a dynamic leader, so I just continue to see that grow,” Sirianni said. “He was a great leader last year and he’s continued to be a great leader. He truly practices what he preaches by getting a little better every day. Those incremental gains that he makes as a leader every day, they’re noticeable. So yeah, it’s hard to imagine that he can do much better, but he does.”
That’s what the Colts need from their head coach because the expectations have been set.